Kanye West Was Right(ish) | WIRED

Four thousand is a reference to the 40 acres Black people were supposed to receive as reparations and start-up seed investment after the US Civil War, reparations that were never fully distributed. Kanye seems to be saying, we never got our 40 acres, but on my own, I amassed 100 times that amount.

In the early 1900s, Kanye’s family was located in Oklahoma, a land of opportunity for Black people. When Kanye’s grandfather, Portwood Williams, was born, Oklahoma had 50 all-Black towns, more than existed in any other state. At the center was Tulsa, home to what Booker T. Washington proudly proclaimed “Black Wall Street.” The district was founded by one of the first Black self-made millionaires—OW Gurley—and was widely considered to be one of the wealthiest Black neighborhoods in the south.

In 1921, when Portwood was seven, the idyllic Black Wall Street was attacked by an angry white lynch mob in what came to be known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. Over 300 Black people were murdered, and 35 blocks and the businesses on them were burned to the ground. As a young boy, Portwood worked shining shoes, bringing home his money to help pay the bills but also keeping a little for himself. As an adult, he launched an upholstery business, finding success and ultimately being honored as one of Oklahoma City’s outstanding Black businessmen.

In 1958, Portwood took his young children to what became a three-day sit-in at the Katz Drug Store lunch counter in downtown Oklahoma City. It wasn’t enough just to quietly build his own success; he had to move beyond self-interest and make demands for broader power as well. He wanted to show what it meant to be successful—on one’s own terms and with autonomy—as a Black man. Portwood and his wife, Lucille, had four children: Shirlie, Klaye, Portwood Jr., and Donda, Kanye’s mother. They would instill in them a strong work ethic, steely determination, unshakable faith in God, and commitment to civil rights.

When you consider this history, Kanye’s frame of mind begins to make more sense. The Williams family has persisted towards a vision of autonomy even in the face of overwhelmingly violent racism. For Kanye, it’s led him down a path of seeking agency and power through often iconoclastic methods: “We’re going to do things my way now.” It’s why those 4,000 acres mean so much to him and his father.

This movement is bigger and older than Kanye. In 1895, at the Atlanta Exposition, Booker T. Washington gave a speech that would become known as the “Atlanta Compromise.” In front of a mostly white crowd, Washington urged Black people to avoid confrontation with white people over segregation or political or social equity and instead focus on building independent Black economic security. His argument was this: Black people needed to create their own fate and fortune, independent of their white surroundings.

Over a century after that speech, this DIY framework of Black economic autonomy has persisted in Black political thought. In few places has this been clearer than the resurgence of Black economist Thomas Sowell in surprising online spaces. Sowell is a prolific writer and a leader of conservative-libertarian thought. Central to his ideology, Sowell sees the combination of federal aid and racialized rhetoric as a gateway drug to neutralize the working class and compromise Black family values, community economics, and sustainability. The enemy is not conservatism, Sowell proclaims, but liberal intellectuals, celebrities, and politicians who hide behind platitudes and create ivory towers around public knowledge and free exchange of thought.

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